Bengals Lack Fortitude

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The “mental game” really doomed the Bengals last night. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

It took the Patriots four minutes and 57 seconds to put the Bengals on their heels and they never regained their balance.  Last night was exactly the kind of game everyone expected from the Patriots.  They came out fired up and ready to prove something.  Tom Brady responded in typical fashion showing everyone this show is far from over.  Likewise, the Bengals played as many guessed due to their inability to play under the bright lights.  There’s a thousand reasons to cite when trying to explain what happened last night, but the root cause of it all is the Bengals’ lack of mental aptitude within such situations.  There’s no doubt that the Bengals are an extraordinarily talented team.  I still contend the Bengals are the more talented team when measured against the Patriots.  But sports are often said to be “10% physical and 90% mental,” and that old adage held true Sunday evening.

On offense the Bengals lacked an ability to respond in kind when the Patriots threw their best shot right off the bat.  The Bengals failed to convert ANY crucial third downs while the play-calling was best described as perplexing.  Hue Jackson is a talented and creative mind.

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Like the Bengals, he possesses all the talent in the world.  But yesterday, it seemed Hue wanted to swing back hard when conventional wisdom would’ve said “pound the rock.”  The Bengals only handed the ball off 15 times to their running backs.  A game that saw Giovani Bernard produce his highest yard/carry total of the year while Jeremy Hill took only two handoffs.  Baffling, I know.  This against a team that went into the game ranked in the bottom third of the team against the rush and who would be missing Dont’a Hightower–the Patriots’ strong side linebacker–for the evening; the Patriots had the best passing defense heading into the game.  What really symbolized this puzzling approach was the third and three from the Patriots’ six yard line.  Jeremy Hill wasn’t even on the field, though the situation screamed for his presence.  He could’ve taken the handoff, caught the ball in the flat, or provided a big blocker for Dalton on a play-action.  I love Giovani Bernard, but he’s not the bruiser Hill is.

Even more baffling was Andy Dalton’s performance.  After taking so much heat for his performance in big games over the years, Dalton had a pretty strong game, albeit on limited attempts.  He actually produced a slightly higher yards/attempt average when compared to Brady–8.5 to 8.3 respectively–while having the same 2:0 touchdown to interception ratio; without his two well placed touchdown passes, this game is even worse than it was.  It was a truly befuddling game plan and execution on offense.

On defense, the Patriots knew exactly where to hit the Bengals and exploited them all night.  Having historically struggled against pass-catching tight ends, the Bengals continued this trend by allowing Rob Gronkowski and newly-acquired Tim Wright to hammer the seam to the tune of 11 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns.  In his first prime time performance (other than his rookie appearance in the 2012 playoffs), Emmanuel Lamur looked lost.  This after garnering praise from Paul Guenther in the past regarding his football IQ.

"“He’s a smart player. He’s a player who knows the defense. Maybe not as much as Burfict because he was out last year, but he’s that kind of guy that understands the big picture. Having him back is a big advantage for us.”"

Lamur is supposed to be the Bengals’ best coverage linebacker, and though he was filling in Burfict’s role, he repeatedly made mental mistakes while missing tackles and looking hesitant.

Domata Peko’s statement after the game really summed things up.

The mental focus was nonexistent as the Patriots were simply a step ahead.  Conventional wisdom would say the Bengals would deal well with up-tempo pacing as Hue Jackson likes to run his offense at a quick pace, so the defense shouldn’t have been unfamiliar with this approach.  Yet, the Bengals were consistently still getting set up as the ball was being snapped and the defensive’s performance reflected such confusion.  The Patriots hit on long passes early and often.  And when the Bengals adjusted, the Patriots were a step ahead once more.  They hit the ground running and racked up over 200 yards from Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen alone.  The Bengals simply couldn’t stop what, just 24 hours before, was considered to be an anemic offense that lacked weapons.

A.J. Green contended the Bengals didn’t underestimate the Patriots.  If that’s true, then how does a team come out so flat?  The simple answer is a lack of leadership.  The Bengals are a supremely talented bunch.  Maybe the league’s most talented.  Yet, they lack a leadership presence.  The kind that uplifts his teammates and inspires them to raise their game.  One that takes control of moments that are getting out-of-hand and makes a play happen that changes momentum.  Andy Dalton’s two big throws did nothing.  The sack by Robert Geathers sparked little.  The Bengals need someone who owns these moments and brings that will and energy when the situation lacks it.  That moment where after you’ve gotten hit in the face, you come back harder and more focused rather than falling over and stumbling.

As Mike Tyson once said:

"“Everyone has a plan until they punched in the mouth.”"

Last night, the Patriots came out swinging and landed a quick haymaker or two and the Bengals never got off the mat.  Call it fortitude, call it toughness, or even call it anger.  Whatever it is that gets you up off that mat and brings you back into the fight, the Bengals didn’t have it last night.  It’s become a concern that defines this team.

Make no mistake about it.  The Bengals are a good football team.  They’ll go on to win several more games this year.  They’re likely to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.  But regardless of how talented they are, until the Bengals find their leader and inner fortitude during these big moments, Who Dey Nation will have to except that talent has taken this team as far as it’ll go.

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